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Greg Lindsay

Journalist & Co-Author, Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next

May 15


Humanity is an urban species — more than half of us live in cities. Cities have proven to be the best incubators for innovation, the front lines in the war against climate change, and the stepping stones to the middle class. The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy estimates the urban population of Earth is set to double in the next 43 years, while urban land cover will double in just 19 years. But people won't just flock to the cities we have now — there are hundreds, and potentially thousands of cities waiting to be born.

Governments, corporations and individuals are working on designing the cities of tomorrow. What will make these cities successful? Can we build better cities from scratch?


Matthew Carbone

Architectural Photographer

Matthew gave the final word

If you’re asking, can we build a complete New York today from scratch that is better than the current one, the answer is no.

Can use the knowledge we have to build better frameworks for future cities? Yes.

…Predicting the future is a difficult thing, too often our ambitious, over detailed plans are forget, dismissed by the next generation of leaders, or simply turn out to be wrong. It’s important to have both a vision and a plan but to remember that cities are organic works of progress.

Wednesday, May 18 at 12:11pm

It seems that the greater scale of our planned cities, the bigger the failures we’re capable of. If you look at the planned city failures of the 20th century – Brasilia and Canberra come to mind – they are on an epic scale. Our ambitions and our ability to build now easily outstrip our ability to design large scale developments.

The other issue is pace. All city plans are an aggregation of hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of decisions and trade-offs. In cities that have grown organically over time, those decisions are made at a very small scale, iteratively, and in response to both macro and micro context. In rapidly planned and constructed cities, many of those decisions are aggregated, heuristics take the place of negotiated compromises, and some key choices are just left to chance or punted to the future.

I don’t even think its worth considering that instant cities can be better than ones that develop more slowly through collective decision making. We must assume they’ll be inferior – the real question is can we design them to be more flexible and reconfigurable by the people who’ll have to live in them. In that sense, the new emphasis on smart systems holds great promise – if digital technologies make it possible to script a more responsive, configurable layer atop the coarse physical infrastructure of instant cities, it might allow a more rapid organic evolution to happen without a costly set of retrofits.

Monday, May 16 at 11:22am


Jarrett Walker

Principal Consultant, MRCagney

Having lived and worked in Canberra, one of the supposed “epic” failures described by Mr Townsend (the previous commenter), I think that city’s experience is actually a good response to the original question.

Canberra is an intentional city, barely a century old, created exclusively to be a capital, so its peers include Brasilia, Islamabad, Chandigarh and Washington DC. As often happens around national capitals, Canberra also has Australia’s leading research university and a range of other research and cultural institutions of national importance.

Its original design fuses Garden City intimacy with the axis-and-monument formalism of Haussmann’s Paris or L’Enfant’s Washington. The defining idea of this fusion is that the axis-and-monument vocabulary was set to work glorifying the natural landscape rather than the State. Whereas grand axes in Paris, Washington and New Delhi relate images of State power to one another, those of Canberra are built around natural features. Thus the single most important axis of symmetry in the composition runs from the Parliament Hill (now site of Parliament House) to the summit of one of the tallest hills overlooking the inner city (Mount Ainslie). Many aspects of the city’s original design speak of a humble relationship to the landscape. Most obviously, development fills the city’s valleys but doesn’t climb its hills, so that metaphorically, people in Canberra are always looking up to nature and feeling their subordinate place in it.

It’s widely agreed, at least among Canberra’s planning leaders, that the city began to go off track when it dismissed the architects of this scheme, Walter (and Marion) Burley-Griffin, and a series of more pragmatic and visionless decisons began to be made, leading up to the mid-century decision that the city would sprawl in car-dependent forms. That’s really the moment when Canberra was doomed to seem bland. Canberra is actually thick with brilliant, creative, interesting people who are hard to meet, because they’re mostly in cars or behind hedges.

What does all that say about the question? First, even with intense government energy, Canberra took decades to come into being, so the first challenge is how to command an urban economy into existence.

One answer may be high-speed rail. Where big cities are extremely confined, a sudden reduction in travel times to a nearby site — focused on a single point like a rail station — can certainly create a boom that clear government intention could channel.

The second, of course, is the perennial question of how planning evolves over time. The Burley-Griffins are local saints in Canberra not because they got everything right, but because their plan (a) locked in some fundamental and defining values of the culture, most notably the deference to nature, but (b) has proven resilient in adapting to new needs. Late 20c car culture added a bunch of car-dependent suburbs around the edges, but didn’t destroy or even undermine the beauty and functionality of the core. Visual pleasures once available by horsecart (and which Burley-Griffin wanted to be available by tram) are now available by car, but some of the grandest are best appreciated by bicycle, and soon public transport will offer many of the same vistas.

So in short, yes, you can build cities from scratch, so long as your original designer has a feel for what’s eternal and what’s a passing fad of his/her historical moment.

The Burley-Griffins didn’t always get this right. For example, the CBD street network, consisting of concentric hexagonal loops, looks cool and classical on maps but is mostly just irritating on the ground. Still, they got the big things right by having some humility about their own period’s tastes, so that they could see, and embody, the lasting human needs that their city would aim to meet, and still does.

Jarrett Walker,

Monday, May 16 at 4:31pm

What is the evidence for this claim?
“But people won’t just flock to the cities we have now — there are hundreds, and potentially thousands of cities waiting to be born.”
If there are new wholly new cities being designed and built, how many of them are happening in cities with non-authoritarian planning regimes?

Surely the real challenge for a truly no-longer-modernist architecture, having finally given up the fantasy of ever being able to “start from scratch” (by fiat of some commissioning dictator), is, what Tony Fry calls, ‘Metrofitting’ – working out how to renovate existing cities (while people continue to live and work in them) for increased populations resourced more equitably and resiliently in changed climate, post-peak-oil conditions.

(Please also note that the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy’s recent report (with the unfortunately Lebensraum-y title of) “Making Room for a Planet of Cities,” is a salvo in the backlash to urban densification. Whatever you make of its ‘evidence-based’ arguing (cities in developed nations have been reducing density as income disparity increases and the wealthy move to sprawl; developing nations have tried to regulate for containment and protected in-city public space, but unsuccessfully, leading to laissez-faire infill; so cities need to give up ‘ideological’ commitments to containment, and instead regulate for market-driven expansion along arterial transport), note the conclusion (p69): “We now know that densities have been in persistent decline for a century or more, and we can expect them to continue to decline as long as incomes increase and transport remains relatively inexpensive.”

Will transport remain relatively inexpensive?

Tuesday, May 17 at 3:06pm


Matthew Carbone

Architectural Photographer

Matthew gave the Final Word

With many distinct and successful city building models and an infinite number of measures to define a livable and enjoyable city experience there is certainly no one correct answer to these questions.

A few of the many variables at play are… What is scale of this new city? What measurement of time are we using to decided its success or failure? To what level detail is it being planned? Is the attempt to make this a “future proof” city? There are countless considerations to be made…

Two very recent examples come to mind, the Norman Foster designed Masdar City and the new, still in design, corporate headquarters for Apple. While numerous differences exist between these two projects the I’d like to touch on the similarities.

With Masdar City and Apple, there is one person that has ultimate authority. The scale of both projects while very large, equates to a small city, and therefor is manageable from a design, planning and functionality perspective. Each of these new cities are largely separated from the outside world, they break free from old foundations of their surroundings or are closed off. Like a Disney World, hold the Mouse. This allows them to the ability to not compromise their vision, technology use, of new infrastructure. Of course these developments and their possible successes are secured through the billions of dollars in financial backing, and a business model that has made such development economically possible. Not many cities can begin with billions of dollars of debt in construction and infrastructure spending and expect to succeed.

If you’re asking, can we build a complete New York today from scratch that is better than the current one, the answer is no.

Can use the knowledge we have to build better frameworks for future cities? Yes.

The knowledge we have can help our future leaders determine a basic framework for the city they hope to create. Is it realistic to expect “your plot of land in Iowa to become New York West?” If not, maybe your city should not plan for a 100 billion dollar subway system but instead maybe a structured streetcar system would be better.

There is great importance of understanding zoning and density along with a strong land use policy. This would go a long way towards helping new cities grow at sustainable rates, and avoid collapse much like many of our cities faced in the 60s.

Predicting the future is a difficult thing, too often our ambitious, over detailed plans are forget, dismissed by the next generation of leaders, or simply turn out to be wrong. It’s important to have both a vision and a plan but to remember that cities are organic works of progress.

Wednesday, May 18 at 12:11pm

    Masdar may be the most hopeful model for a different kind of city that has come along so far, and this only by the possibilities that massive sovereign wealth can bring. I’m no expert on it, and aside from the good points you bring up in terms of top-down authority in creating cities, as opposed to organic growth, what I find disappointing about Masdar at present is that it is sort of an Eco-Architectural theme pavilion, apart from the larger emirate, which is otherwise roaring along in its head-to-head competition with Dubai and Doha as the supreme Gulf aerotropolis and cosmopolis. It is not as if Khalifa has ordered all of central Abu Dhabi to be remade in the energy-saving Masdar model.

    For example, this recent episode of Richard Quest’s Future Cities on CNN, about Abu Dhabi:

    The show covers Masdar, but also shows plans for the center of Abu Dhabi burgeoning in the model of Dubai. It also presents the world’s largest indoor theme park, Ferrari World, perhaps one of the largest air-conditioned enclosures on the planet, in the middle of world’s hottest zone. Taken together, most of what is developing in Abu Dhabi is for our cheap-fossil-fuel-assumption era.

    Masdar is, at least now, just an Epcot Center for Green Architecture. I could be mistaken, but it appears that groundbreaking platform is not even being incorporated into the high-profile plans of its own hometown to double its size by 2030. Disney World and the Vegas Strip have monorails, but that doesn’t make Las Vegas or Orlando sustainable cities. I’d love to see Masdar perfected and implemented elsewhere (with climate-appropriate equivalents in other regions) but for now the bigger paradigm shift that needs to take place has just not occurred, even in its own backyard.

    Thursday, May 19 at 5:14pm

I agree with some of the statements Cameron made on Tuesday. When you say, “from scratch”– aren’t we rapidly running out of all types of “scratch?” Many countries, including China and the United States, are plowing under and paving over precious, well-situated agricultural land as cities continue to spread. Does our planet have enough material resources for the building inputs to construct entire new cities in the model that we currently employ, or the fuels to continue to situated and organize our cities as they have been til now?

I tend to believe that perhaps the more successful cities of the future will have as their foundation the aspects that made historical cities prosper prior to the late 20th century: an adjacent hinterland of natural bounty, easy access to a waterway or ocean, and a favorable growing climate. In this sense I wonder if the urban phenomena of the fossil fuel era will be something of an anomaly, such as the American Sun Belt. Along these lines, I also tend to think that the best prospects for future cities may lie in some rather forlorn urban regions, especially America’s Rust Belt, a constellation of cities whose cores are currently populated at roughly half their demonstrated capacity, and which sit in one of the world’s most favorable agricultural regions, and of course, curved around huge percentage of the world’s fresh water, both in the Great Lakes and the tremendous Ohio-Mississippi-Missouri river system. The dying cities of Russia might be another opportunity; and surely the fact that all of cornucopial Canada has fewer people than many South Asian metro regions is, in terms of the whole distribution of our species, quite an imbalance.

Maybe human technological achievement will overcome a lot of the daunting issues of climate change and resource scarcity that our civilization is confronted with, and that if there continues to be a source of cheap, abundant fuel, or if the desalination of the oceans becomes widely viable, regions like the American desert southwest or the Arabian peninsula will continue to boom in population and experience prosperous urbanization. Maybe we should be building new cities on the desert, rather than spreading over farmland.

What are these ‘cities of tomorrow’, specifically? Gurgaon? Songdo? King Abdullah Economic City? Kenya’s Konza City? La Cité du Fleuve, on the edge of Kinshasa? Romer’s charter cities? I’ve studied a lot of these, and don’t actually see these as adopting much of a new model– many of them seem to emulate the last round of new cities, especially the glimmering entrepot of Dubai, itself a derivative of the American boomtowns of petrol-abdundance.

In my opinion, the biggest opportunity to accommodate all these new people is to focus on making what we already have work more efficiently.

Thursday, May 19 at 10:17am

Cities are difficult to fathom. Not only are they the locus for much of humanity’s economic and creative energies, they also provide space and sanctuary for half the world’s population. As they increase in size and complexity, so too do questions surrounding their future. Yet designers charged with creating the so-called cities of tomorrow often overlook what makes the cities of today such vibrant and interesting places to live. Cities are cauldrons for diversity and difference, and the small scale, the spontaneous and the particular are all essential elements. This is why they are such a draw for those who aspire for economic and political security or freedom. As much as cities are stepping stones for the middle class, the sad truth is that inequality is actually increasing in cities, especially in the more mature cities of Europe and North America.

This is why mindful urbanists cannot overlook one important risk associated with the convergence of technology and cities: the marginalizing of the digitally disenfranchised. The urban experience simply cannot be dictated by smart phone app. We need to ensure equitable access to digital tools and the information they collect and disseminate. EB White eloquently wrote about the three types of New Yorkers – the Native, the Commuter and the Settler. It is the mix of these three characters that animate city life. Too much of the talk around the promise of new technologies overlooks the Settler – the immigrants and new residents who bring with them their aspirations and passions.

Lastly, as the idea of the “new city” gains momentum, designers and urban leaders must keep in mind that the city is not at all a new entity. Urban form works best when it allows for incremental change. The world’s conflicts play out on the urban stage, and whether the issue is the environment, equity, mobility or the economy, cities around the globe have more in common than is typically acknowledged. It is not only the townships of Cape Town that struggle to provide safety and security for their residents. So too do neighborhoods such as Brownsville in Brooklyn. Much can be learned from the protestors of Tahrir Square, and it’s that citizens have a voice in demanding their basic rights; they have a role to play getting the basics right. Government simply cannot do it alone.

Friday, May 20 at 7:58pm

In this century, billions of people will move to cities. On the current trajectory, far too many will go to places that don’t want them. As a result, they will live in conditions that deny them equal treatment under the law and exclude them from full participation in the modern economy.

To achieve true inclusion, we will need an environment like the one that prevailed on the frontier in the United States, where cities were in frantic competition to attract more residents. How can we replicate these conditions on the scale now required?

In principle, existing cities could learn how to grow in ways that benefit both existing residents and new arrivals. After all, the evidence clearly shows that bigger cities are better places to live. Sadly, a combination of bad management and bad politics means that the world’s existing cities probably won’t rise to this challenge. They could follow Los Angeles and grow by accommodating immigrants, but they are more likely to follow Cleveland and wither away.

Fortunately, those who want a chance to live as a legal resident in a modern urban center don’t have to wait for the legacy cities to act. A new city is worth far more than it costs to build one. Without relying on any charity, new cities could emerge and provide the competition that is the only real hope for the excluded and marginalized.

Ideally, new cities will be created close to the greatest source of potential residents, in developing countries. They typically do not have in place the system of rules that a successful city will require, but their governments can offer these rules in large-scale special reform zones on unoccupied land. These zones can put new rules in place without forcing them on anyone. People will then have a chance to opt-into life under these rules if they want to, just as when millions of people from Communist China opted in to life in Hong Kong.

The challenge for the planning and design community will be to support the countries that pursue this strategy of inclusive, affordable urbanization. To use an automotive analogy, the world does not need a few more hand-crafted, one-off luxury sedans that feed off of status competition among the elite. The demand is for model T’s.

The action in this century will not involve new cities for the rich like Dubai, new technology demonstration projects like Masdar, or new showcase capitals like Brasilia and Canberra. In the city building business, the real opportunity will be to build cities like Hong Kong of the 1950s. A few hundred could make a real difference.

Friday, May 20 at 8:44pm


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